By Sonia Elks
LONDON, Feb 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Britain on Friday rejected calls to force car wash owners to apply for licences to prevent the abuse and enslavement of workers, in a move criticised by lawmakers as a missed chance.
Thousands of workers in Britain's car washes are estimated to be slaves — mostly men lured from Eastern Europe then trapped in debt bondage, forced to work in unsafe conditions, stripped of their documents and subjected to threats, abuse and violence.
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Lawmakers on the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) said it was "disappointing" that the government had turned down its proposals to trial licensing in favour of endorsing a voluntary industry-led scheme recognising good practice.
"There is more to do on tackling labour exploitation," Mary Creagh, chairwoman of the committee, which scrutinises the government's environmental policies, said in a statement.
"With so few minimum wage prosecutions despite the exploitation of workers being commonplace, the government must send a strong message to car wash operators that such practices are illegal and that it will not turn a blind eye."
Chelmsford Crown Court hears former Clacton car wash worker was forced to work for free, share a house with a dozen people and survive on just £10 for food https://t.co/uzGv95Dwllpic.twitter.com/50iLnzf4Fc— BBC Essex (@BBCEssex) January 29, 2019
Industry leaders backed the government's Responsible Car Wash Scheme, launched in October, which recognises businesses that operate legally, hire and treat their employees fairly, and protect the environment.
Lawmakers on the committee warned too little action was being taken against "flagrant rule-breaking" and "a spectrum of exploitation" within many of Britain's 20,000-odd car washes, in a report released the following month.
They highlighted data showing there have been only 14 prosecutions for failure to pay the minimum wage since 1999.
In its response to the committee, the government said it was committed to tackling modern slavery and it recognised that licensing could be a valuable tool against labour exploitation.
However, it said any change to regulations should be informed by evidence which would be best gathered through the voluntary pilot approach.
The government did agree to write to major supermarkets to remind them they are responsible for ensuring hand car washes operating on their land follow pollution prevention advice and guidance for the protection of the environment.
Campaigners said the response was a missed opportunity.
"By resisting calls for licensing in this and other high-risk sectors, the government risks paving the way for greater abuse and exploitation," Caroline Robinson, of the charity Focus on Labour Exploitation, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Reporting by Sonia Elks @soniaelks; Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)